Preston Sturges is best known for producing a variety of highly praised and fairly varied comedies in the thirties and forties, but his directorial debut, which he also wrote, is really quite different from the majority of his movies. It is a film which contains a lot of political satire but it also borders on melodrama at times, and the ending is a rare example where Sturges offers up a quite pessimistic view of the way of the world.
It begins in an unnamed bar in an unnamed banana republic where Tommy (Louis Jean Heydt), a very drunk guy, tries to kill himself. The bartender, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), wrestles the gun off of him and Tommy mentions how his life has gone wrong because of one crazy minute, but rather than hearing his tale McGinty explains how he used to be a US Governor, and it’s clear that his life has taken a turn for the negative in a far worse way, and a selection of flashbacks as to how everything went wrong follows.
The McGinty we then meet is a down and out homeless guy struggling to get by, but then he meets Skeeters (Sturges regular William Demarest) who offers him two dollars to vote for Mayor Wilfred H. Tillinghast, and if he can visit other polling stations Skeeters is more than happy for him to vote as many times as he wants, using a different name each time of course. McGinty’s a dodgy fella indeed and so manages to vote thirty seven times, in this not particularly subtle but still quite funny commentary on electoral fraud.
Doing all of this means McGinty catches the eye of The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) a crooked sort who is the real power behind the politicians in this town, and who has all manner of dodgy operations from running a protection racket to building all number of constructions that aren’t really needed. He hires McGinty to run the protection racket at first which he’s worryingly good at, and after the papers claim that Tinninghast is corrupt, The Boss decides that McGinty is the man to replace him.
An arranged marriage with McGinty’s secretary Catherine (Muriel Angelus) is then organised, as supposedly ever since women got the vote politicians need the love of a good woman behind them, and though at first it’s only strictly business and Catherine amusingly calls her husband “Mr McGinty” the whole time, they do eventually fall in love, and it’s her loving influence upon him that turns McGinty in to a good man. There’s no such place for that type of human being in politics however, so his downfall doesn’t take too long at all.
This really isn’t a subtle film, at least by twenty first century standards, and the political satire is a little on the nose at times. But it is largely funny, there’s some strong physical comedy as McGinty and The Boss all too often settle their differences with their fists, and as you’d expect from Sturges the script is often nicely amusing. The final act takes a serious turn and the laughs dry up as Sturges examines what happens when a politician disobeys his superiors and tries to do good, but that said when McGinty demands they introduce a child labour bill and stamp out sweat shops, the way The Boss dismisses his views with the line “You’re sprouting like a woman” generated a laugh.
It’s a film packed with strong performances but Akim Tamiroff is especially good as the corrupt bastard behind it all, while Brian Donlevy is decent enough, it’s not a memorable piece of acting but he carries the film well, and becomes far more sympathetic when Muriel Angelus’s appealing Catherine comes in to his life. On that front, as with quite a few of Sturges films it’s the women who are smart and honest and the men who are shady or stupid, and he confidently presents a case where it’s hard to argue with the idea, while it’s also a film which suggests that people can change for the better, even if by the end doing such a thing leads to misery for all involved.
There are a couple of times towards the end where it threatens to become a little melodramatic, and though it moves at a fairly fast pace it’s a shame that the satire isn’t slightly more vicious, that it didn’t really lay in to The Boss and highlight just how despicable his actions clearly are. Due to that it feels like a slightly lightweight effort from Sturges, it’s enjoyable for sure but not up there with his very best work.